EDITOR'S NOTE: In recognition of the fifth anniversary of my first Coping column, I'm republishing four of my first five columns that were printed in The Record of Bergen County, N.J. beginning in August 2003.
A man named Robert sometimes drops by at the F.A.I.T.H Foundation Boutique in Hackensack , N.J. and plops himself on the couch. It's a ratty old couch, one that once was on its way to the garbage. But it's all he's got.
Robin Reilly runs the place, and she gives Robert and other homeless people a place to go. They're not happy - Robert, in fact, occasionally screams to the point that his voice is hoarse - and every one of them wishes for a better life. But where else can they go? And for Reilly, that's the crux of the problem for her legion of followers - and there are many, each one deteriorating before her eyes. Watching it nearly drives Reilly to tears. No, not out of fear or pity. Out of frustration. Sure, Reilly's got love. But let's face it: It doesn't pay the bills.
At her boutique on 86 State St., where the homeless go to hang, stay off the Hackensack streets, and refinish chairs that are sold at a minimal price, the money is trickling in. What she runs is not a homeless shelter it's a furniture and knickknack store that makes very little money. The idea, she said, is to give the homeless something to do other than walk the streets.
Unlike organizations that assist the homeless, she doesn't get federal and state assistance. She's worried that she may have to close, perhaps by October, if she can't afford the rent and utilities. And Reilly needs more - a lot more - if her boutique makes it past winter.
No too long ago there was hope. Reilly applied for a $60,000 grant from Bergen County , N.J. that would help pay her rent and keep her operating indefinitely. But she was rejected, flat. Reilly says the county didn't even offer an explanation.
Now more than ever, she's the one pleading for help. Somebody, she says, has to speak up for those who can't. "All I need is money for rent and utilities," she said. "I'm not worried about salary."
Joe Rutch, Bergen County, N.J. director of community development, wishes he could do more. He allocated $12.8 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funding in 2003, but only 15 percent of that can go to the social service programs. Reilly may be great, he said, but she's competing against established programs that have a proven track record. "We certainly try to help everyone we can," he said.
To Reilly, however, none of that matters. What's important, she says, is the homeless. And these are crucial times for her and those she loves.
She's been a homeless advocate for years, one of the founding members of a winter-only shelter called Peter's Place, a privately run 25-bed shelter at Christ Episcopal Church on State Street in Hackensack.
But much like the clients she's served, the people she's loved to death, she's never really had her own home - a permanent one - for her work. She found what was only a temporary home in the Salvation Army in Hackensack two years ago before losing that.
The boutique was her salvation. Besides, she says, what else do the homeless have? The local facilities are either full or, in the case of Peter's Place, they're not open in the summer. Or they don't take people who are intoxicated or mentally ill. Reilly does.
"I've had to go to the woods to get people," she said. "That's one thing that these agencies don't do. They stay behind their desks. They don't go in the woods."
Not too long ago she had in her shop a woman with a partial lobotomy and a young man with slashed wrists. Some smelled of liquor. Others were perfectly lucid, but they were missing some important part of their body. Or they were poor. Some assist her in the business others are too tired and end up sitting in a chair for hours, or dozing on the couch.
Reilly hates to even think about the possibility of closing her doors once again, leaving them to their own devices on the streets. And in Hackensack, the homeless don't go there just to live. They die. In July, a 42-year-old man died just outside the F.A.I.T.H. Foundation boutique.
The last time Reilly didn't have a place, she worked out of her car. At least it's something, she says. Anything, she says, is better than being homeless.
EDITORS NOTE: The F.A.I.T.H. center has since been closed. Jerome Lombardo, chairman of the Upper Main Street Business Alliance in Hackensack, N.J., says the foundation's programs "did not effectively aid the homeless, but rather simply sustained them in their life on the streets, as they continued spiraling downward in the hopelessness of drug abuse, alcoholism and related maladies."